"Merit Badge of Honor" by: Ridley C. James
Timeline: Right after 'Love Remembers' before 'Growing Pains'
-Lois McMaster Bujold
Seventeen-year-old Caleb Reaves checked his watch. It was only six-thirty, which meant that Deuce had set a new record in finding trouble. The nine-year-old boy had been gone just under an hour. Mr. Wyatt had called the farm asked to speak with Caleb. John was in the barn replacing the brake pads on the Jeep, and Jim passed Caleb the phone without question.
Mr. Wyatt insisted he come get Dean right away, and they would discuss the details when he got there. Dean was supposed to be gone all evening. Jim offered him the keys to his old truck for the trip, sparing having to ask Johnny to drive the Impala, and avoiding The Knight’s third degree interrogation. He would handle John when they got home when he knew better what amount of covering and subterfuge would be required.
Gravel crunched under Betsey’s tires as Caleb pulled the ancient Chevy into the New Haven Fire Hall’s parking lot and killed the engine. He pulled his long hair back into a low ponytail before exiting the truck, sliding out of his scuffed leather jacket and tossing in on the seat. Caleb understood that the good citizens of New Haven didn’t respond well to his typical dress and tried to spare Jim the gossip about his ‘hoodlums’ whenever possible.
It was nearly dark out now, the path to the side door illuminated by lit pumpkins. Caleb snorted at the irony. Burning gourds were an odd decoration choice for a bunch of volunteer firemen, but so were the fake skeletons decked out in turn-out gear and the freaky stuffed Dalmation dog holding a plastic severed human hand in its mouth.
Caleb didn’t bother knocking as he heard laughter and loud voices coming from within. He shoved orange and black crepe paper streamers out of the way and strode into the room as if he owned the place. It was the way John would have handled it, and the little knot of worry that started with the phone call was unfurling to full on concern as his connection to Dean strengthened with the close proximity.
“May I help you?” A burly man in a dull brown button up adorned with colorful patches strode forward.
“I’m here for Dean Winchester.”
The man’s fake pleasantry ended with his fading smile. “Hey, Mike.” He motioned to another man standing behind a table. It was littered with rope and six boys stood around tying knots of various kinds. “Winchester’s ride is here.”
Mike didn’t waste any time. He left the boys to their work, a couple of them giving Caleb curious looks. He recognized a few of them from Jim’s church. Tyler, the one who had invited Dean, made a point of glancing away quickly.
“Caleb, I take it?”
He extended his hand, before placing a hand on the teen’s shoulder to guide him to another part of the large open area with some metal lockers and cots. Caleb shrugged off the touch, scanning the area for Deuce. “Where’s Dean?”
“He’s in the Apparatus Bay.” Mike kept his smile in place. “I sent him down there to cool off. You know how boys can be.”
“I know Dean.” Caleb crossed his arms over his chest. “What’s this all about?”
Mike studied the teen, his eyes lingering momentarily on the ripped jeans and grease-stained tee before meeting Caleb’s questioning gaze. “Dean said his father was out of town.”
“He is.” Technically Jim’s farm was out of the city limits. “I’m in charge.”
“You boys stay at Pastor Murphy’s farm. Right? Family of his?”
“Something like that,” Caleb didn’t have time for the twenty questions. “Can I see Dean now?”
“Sure.” Mike rubbed his neck. “I just wanted to make certain the Pastor understood what happened. We here at the 53rd pride ourselves on our Wolf Cub Troop. The church is a big supporter and our kids are an excellent group of boys.”
“Tyler was singing your praises when he invited Dean to come.”
“Tyler is a sweet kid.” Caleb caught the wince, the way Mike’s shoulder’s tensed. “His father is Battalion Chief.”
Caleb nodded. It was one of the reasons why Dean was excited about joining the Wolf Cubs. The kid didn’t ask to do much so when the opportunity had presented itself and the boys found themselves at the farm for fall break, John didn’t say no to his son’s request. The kid was jonesing to see the inside of a firehouse, even one as small as the one in New Haven. Though he didn’t admit it, Caleb knew Dean was more than a little jazzed about the whole Wolf Cubs idea. “That’s what I hear.”
“We were having the new inductions ceremony tonight as well as bestowing merit badges for those Cubs who had completed the necessary skills on our last camp out.”
Again Caleb nodded. “And?”
“I’m not sure Dean is quite cut out for The Wolf Cubs.”
Caleb bristled at the familiar tone of voice. He’d heard similar statements said about himself to Mackland often enough. Hearing them in reference to Dean was an entirely different story. “What makes you say that, Mike?”
From the way the man took a step back, Caleb was certain he’d projected the need for the older man to choose his next words very carefully. “He refused to say the oath, and when one of the boys inquired as to why, there was an altercation.”
It didn’t make sense. Dean wanted to join the troop. “Dean and this kid got in a fight?” Dean didn’t have a short fuse. He knew better than to start trouble, a healthy fear of Corporal Winchester and the desire not to disappoint his dad, keeping him in line more often than not.
“More of a scuffle.” Mike offered a light chuckle. “I think Stevie clipped him pretty good with an elbow when we were trying to separate the two.”
The guy was glossing it over. Caleb suspected if Pastor Jim hadn’t been in the back of his mind, Mike would have dropped the concerned troop leader role and called things like he saw them. It didn’t matter, Caleb read his thoughts loud and clear. He clenched his fists. “I want to talk to Dean.”
“Of course.” Mike pointed to the other side of the room. “You can go down the stairs or this way.” He gestured to the fire pole. “The boys get a kick out of it.”
Caleb rolled his eyes but couldn’t deny the tiny thrill that rocked through him at the idea of sliding down the brass pole. It was akin to the first time he climbed behind the wheel of his Jeep after getting his license. On principal alone, he backed away, opting for the stairs.
He found Dean sitting in a corner, in front of the one and only fire engine. He had his knees pulled up, upper body resting against the cement wall.
Caleb walked over, casually leaning against the front of the vehicle. “Nice truck.”
"Show’s what you know, Damien. It’s not a truck,” Dean informed him. “It’s a Pumper.”
Dean nodded. “Triple capacity apparatus, actually. It carries hoses and transports personnel, too.”
Caleb pushed off the truck, coming to kneel in front of the boy. He reached out, gently grasping the kid’s chin, tilting his head so he could get a better look. “Tell me, smart guy, how did you come for a coveted Wolf Paw Patch and end up with a busted lip instead?”
Dean pulled away, running a finger over the gash across his bottom lip. “It’s nothing.”
Caleb caught his wrist, pulling Dean’s hand from his mouth, taking another look. The bleeding had stopped, but there was a red splattered stain on the kid’s hooded sweatshirt. He fingered the spots. “This fake blood?”
“Then it’s something, Deuce.” When the kid dropped his gaze, Caleb sighed. “What happened?”
Dean shrugged. “I couldn’t say the stupid Wolf Cub pledge. Dickhead Stevie started laughing, so I shut him up.”
Caleb frowned. “Deuce, if you didn’t know all the words…”
“I’m not stupid!” Dean scrambled to his feet. “I knew the words.”
“Hey.” Caleb straightened, grabbing Dean’s arm before Dean could walk away. “I didn’t mean it that way and you know it. You know me.”
Caleb held onto him until the stormy jade gaze calmed. “I know.”
“So explain it to me.” He let the boy go. “I thought you were psyched to be one of the dog pack? It’s all you’ve yacked about for the last two days. The whole induction thing, hot dogs and Smores over the campfire? Ringing a bell?”
Dean relaxed against the engine’s grill, his eyes going to the cement floor where he scuffed his boot. “I’m not cut out for it.”
“Are you kidding me? Deuce, you can do anything those kids can do and better, probably out do the troop leaders. Hell, they were up there learning to tie knots, something Bobby taught you to do before you could tie your shoes."
“It’s not the skills part.” Dean bit his lip. “I didn’t understand the rules. I didn’t know they had laws.”
“What kind of laws?”
“A whole crap load of them. As long as that oath Mac has on the wall in his office.”
“The Hippocratic Oath?”
“Yeah, but for Wolf Cubs.”
“Dude, it’s just a spiel.”
“It’s a code.” Dean gave him an earnest look. “Like The Brotherhood Code.”
“Okay.” Caleb was still missing something. “They have a code and you didn’t agree with the rules.”
“I can’t follow them,” Dean clarified. “If I said it, it wouldn’t mean anything. I wouldn’t be a real Wolf Cub even if they gave me the stupid badge. I don’t deserve it.”
Caleb leaned beside him, gave his shoulder a slight bump. “Call me dense, Deuce, but I’m not following you.”
Dean dug in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled program. There was a blue wolf paw print on the front. Dean thrust the paper to Caleb. “It’s not for someone like me. That’s what Mr. Wyatt said, and he’s right.”
“He said that to you?” Caleb thought about calling Mike down to join their conversation.
Dean caught his sleeve. “Let’s just go.”
Caleb shook his head. “Not until you tell me why you don’t think you can be in this crappy club.”
Dean thrust his finger at the paper. “Read it, Caleb. I’m not like those other kids. I break laws all the time. I have to lie to keep me and Sammy safe, and sometimes I have to steal. I can’t be friendly to people because I don’t know if they’re the enemy or not. And as for God…I hate him.”
Caleb scanned the inside of the program where the Wolf Cub Oath, Law and Motto was laid out in bold print. The first line declared that all Cubs would tell the truth, that Wolf Cubs were a friend to all. It went on to say that Wolf Cubs were good citizens, obeying their government’s regulations, and that they were reverent and subservient to God.
“Now you understand? Mr. Wyatt kept saying I needed to say the oath, to repeat the laws with the other guys, but I couldn’t.”
Caleb looked at him, understanding all too well. “And this Steve kid had something to say about it?”
“He was a jerk.” Dean licked his lip. “Can we just go?”
Caleb gave the paper another glance before folding it and sliding it into the back pocket of his jeans. He tossed his arm over Dean’s shoulder. “Sure. Let’s get out of here.”
They made it to the farm before the last rays of sunlight had disappeared. The barn lights were off, which doused Caleb’s hopes that John might still be working on his Jeep. Dean made it past his father with a brief ‘Hey, Dad, Sammy’ before slipping through the kitchen and into the living room. Caleb wasn’t so lucky. John looked up from his research, Sam dropping his crayons to peer up at the teen.
“Where’d Dean go?”
“Bathroom,” Caleb said. “He needed to clean up.”
“What’s going on, Junior?” John straightened, tapping his pen on the table. “I thought you weren’t picking Ace up until nine.”
Caleb shrugged, going to the refrigerator where he grabbed a beer for John and a Coke. He opened the freezer taking an ice pack. He handed the amber bottle to his mentor. “Some kid was taking a swing at a piñata, caught Deuce in the kisser instead.” He popped the top on his soda. “Troop leader freaked, thinking Dean might need stitches.”
“Dean’s hurt?” Sammy got up from his chair, shooting an accusing look to the teen.
“He’s okay, Runt.”
John twisted the cap off his drink. “You sure?”
“Geez, I’m not an idiot, Johnny.” Caleb rolled his eyes. “It’s nothing some ice won’t fix.”
“Good. Then I can go back to the research I put off to work on your Jeep.”
“Knock yourself out.”
“I expect you to hold up your end of the bargain.” John gestured to Sam. “Babysitting duty begins now.”
The teen snorted. “Like that gig didn’t start four years ago.”
“I’m not a baby anymore,” Sam said. “I’m in kindergarten.”
Caleb wondered if the five-year-old would ever grow tired of reminding them of that. He’d been in school going on two months now. “Actually, I have a job for Sammy.”
Caleb nodded. “Grab your crayons and follow me.”
When they came out of the library nearly an hour later, the boy’s bedroom door was shut, but the light shined beneath it. Sam banged on the door only once before barreling in with a rush of excitement. “Dean! We’re coming in!”
Caleb winced at the entrance, not surprised that Sam still hadn’t grasped the sentiment of Pastor Jim’s knock before entering speech. “Sammy, you’re supposed to wait until I say come in.”
“But I knew you were in here,” Sam told his brother as he crossed the room to climb up on the bed Dean was sitting on. “Caleb said you were still awake and brooding.”
Caleb ignored the glare, moving the melted ice pack he’d given to Dean earlier, to claim a seat on Sam’s bed. Atticus trailed in behind them collapsing on the lone rug in the center. “I wasn’t the one kicking in the door, Deuce.”
“Is your lip all better?” Sam practically crawled on his brother’s lap, inspecting the damage. He didn’t quite comprehend the personal space concept either. “Caleb said you got hit by a piñata. What’s a piñata?”
Caleb grinned at the smirk Deuce shot him. “It’s nothing to worry about, Sammy.”
“It doesn’t sound like a fun party.”
“No. It wasn’t as great as I thought.”
“That’s why we made you something.”
Dean cocked a brow. “You did?”
Sammy nodded. “Me and Caleb. Even Atticus helped.” He turned to the teen. “Can we give it to him now?”
“I think we should make him stand up. It’ll be more official that way.”
“We have music too.” Sam jumped up, standing on the bed. Fishing in his jeans pocket he withdrew a familiar harmonica. “Jim said I could use Bobby’s accordion as long as I hid it again before Thanksgiving.”
“Damien…” Dean started.
“Stand up, Deuce.” Caleb cut him off by pointing a finger at Sam. “Hit it, Runt.”
Sam blew three long puffs of air into the instrument, blaring out several off key notes. Dean stood, covering his ears. Atticus whined. Caleb stood, clearing his throat dramatically. “Dean Mathew Winchester, we hereby present you with the coveted and prestigious BBB.”
“Can I give it to him?” Sam bounced up and down on the bed.
“Go for it.” Caleb passed a brown envelope to Sam, who in turn thrust it towards his brother.
“It’s the Badge of a Ferret.”
“Merit,” Caleb clarified. “A badge of merit.”
Dean took the envelope, carefully opening it to reveal a round piece of paper. It was colored with crayons and had aluminum foil lined edges. In the center was a large blue paw print surrounded by the words Best Big Brother. At the bottom ‘Leader of the Pack’ was printed in small neat letters.
Sam reached over his brother’s shoulder pointing to the paw print. “We dipped Atticus’s foot in Pastor Jim’s ink well because Caleb said wolves and dogs are basically the same give or take a dew claw.” He looked sheepishly at the teen. “But if anyone notices the blue paw prints on the library rug, you don’t know anything.”
Dean smiled. “Gotcha.” He hugged his little brother. “Thanks, Sammy. It’s great.”
Sam hugged him back. “Now we’re going to roast hot dogs and make Smores around the campfire at the pond.”
“Caleb. He’s the Scout Master.”
Dean snorted. “I think that would be Dad.”
“Speaking of which…” Caleb scooped Sam off the bed and set him on the floor. “Why don’t you start phase two of our plan.”
“Right.” Sam lifted his hand. “Get Pastor Jim on our side.”
Caleb bumped fists with the boy. “Pull out the big guns if need be.”
Sam nodded. “Atticus and I will both give him puppy dog eyes.”
“You’re sick, man, using a five-year-old to do your dirty work.”
Caleb grinned. “I’m just using my resources wisely.” He pulled the folded paper from his pocket. “I think that’s like Law number five in The Wolf Cub’s Oath.”
Dean looked down at the homemade badge in his hand. “That doesn’t matter now.”
Caleb nodded. “Maybe not, but did you read the rest of these laws, Deuce?”
Dean fingered the Best Big Brother patch. “Not really.”
“I did.” Caleb tapped his finger against the program. “It says in here that a Wolf Cub should be loyal to his family and friends, that he should help people without thought of reward or pay. They should put others happiness before their own.” The teen put a hand on the younger boy’s shoulder, making sure Dean was looking at him. “But most importantly, Deuce, and this was the clincher for me; Wolf Cubs are brave, facing danger even when they’re afraid. A Wolf Cub has the courage to stand up for what he believes in even if people laugh at him or threaten him and he always protects his Cub brothers. I’ve never known anyone more loyal, brave or courageous than you, kiddo. You’re the best brother I know. If you want, I’ll go down to the firehouse and make sure Mike Wyatt understands that. You’ll have your badge in no time.”
Dean took the program, giving it a brief once over before crumbling it and tossing it aside. “Thanks, but I’ve been thinking about it and I’d rather be in yours and Sammy’s troop.”
call, kiddo.” Caleb pulled the boy to his side, giving him a quick
squeeze. “The Wolf Cubs definitely aren’t cut out for Dean Winchester.”